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Indianapolis Colts 2016 position preview: Linebackers

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Jim Steve-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one area of the Colts’ defense that could be considered a big question mark, it’s at linebacker. The defensive line is filled with depth and should be a good unit, while the secondary has starters in place and should be at worst quite reliable. The linebackers? It’s still unclear who all the starters will be, much less how those starters will do.

The Colts lost four-year starter Jerrell Freeman in free agency, leaving a hole open at one of the inside linebacker spots. The other spot is occupied by D’Qwell Jackson, who hasn’t missed a game in his two years with the Colts and who has had a productive career. Jackson is clearly on the downswing of his career and has limitations, but he has proven to be a productive player - and the Colts have bigger concerns right now than looking to replace a player who produces, regardless of how well he plays while doing so.

First up on the list is to figure out who will start beside Jackson, and that competition won’t be figured out until after training camp and preseason. This offseason, Nate Irving and Sio Moore were the two primary players at inside linebacker, so those two seem to be the clear favorites to win Freeman’s spot. The Colts signed Irving as a free agent last offseason though his 2015 season was spent mostly getting healthy as he worked through various injuries, while Moore was acquired in a trade with the Raiders shortly before last season began. It seems as if Irving has the edge right now, but it’s one of the few starting spots truly up for competition in camp this year. Other players competing for the spot will be Antonio Morrison (a fourth round draft pick this year), Amarlo Herrera (a sixth round pick last year), Josh McNary (who has started games at inside linebacker for Indy in recent years), and Junior Sylvestre (one of the standouts of preseason last year before suffering a season-ending injury), among others.

While the inside linebacker position is undetermined, the outside linebacker position is filled with perhaps even more question marks. The questions aren’t exactly in regards to the starters - it’ll very likely be Erik Walden and Robert Mathis - but instead in regards to the effectiveness of the position overall, primarily when it comes to pass rush. Walden does a fine job at his role at setting the edge and has shown an ability to get after the quarterback at times as well. Mathis is the Colts’ all-time sack leader who is now two years removed from a torn Achilles, and it’s very reasonable to think he could reach double-digits in sacks this year. Still, Mathis can’t do it all, so the Colts will need other pass rushers to step up. Who will that be? That’s the question that leads to so much uncertainty. Veteran Trent Cole was brought back (though he took a paycut), so the hope is that he will be able to build off of a strong finish to last season to contribute in a bigger way in 2016. Undrafted free agents Ron Thompson and Curt Maggitt will be looking to show something anything that proves they’re worth developing, as will seventh round pick Trevor Bates and converted defensive lineman Earl Okine. There are depth spots open for younger players, though it’s anybody’s guess who will occupy those spots.

It’s fair to say that the pass rush is one of the biggest question marks about the Colts heading into the 2016 season (and beyond) and might very well be at the top of the list. Furthermore, entering training camp one of the biggest things to watch will be the inside linebacker competition, as there’s a starting spot open. So the linebacker corps overall for Indianapolis should be considered a question mark as well - there’s a chance they could be reliable, but it’s hard to know right now. As such, it will be something that bears watching in camp, preseason, and into the regular season.